If you’re thinking about making a career move, make sure it’s a strategic one.
Leah Henderson, October 2020
In the legal profession, ambition comes in many shapes – aspiring partners, in-house wannabes, government lawyer gonnabes, industry experts of tomorrow... Our research shows that when choosing a first firm, the most common priority for newly qualified lawyers is that the firm be a good steppingstone to their next job. Because there’s no single path to get you from A to B, planning ahead is paramount.
Mike Gotham has been in the legal recruitment business for more than 20 years. He’s also a qualified lawyer. As the senior director of legal talent at Perkins Coie, “I often see lateral candidates who’ve had several years of experience in a mix of areas and now are ready to focus,” he tells us. “Then there are those who are looking for a firm where they can progress to partner and have a long-term law firm career.” He also encounters candidates who’ve had a change in personal circumstances that, for example, requires them to move cities. “That prompts the person to think, ‘What kind of opportunity does this create for me?’ And to think about their career from a fresh perspective.’”
“It’s important once you get to your 5th or 6th year to think critically about where you are and if that’s aligned with your goals."
Whatever the reason for changing jobs, “it’s important to think carefully about the decision,” Gotham says. “You don’t want your focus to be leaving a firm; you want it to be going to the right firm. If you just want to get out of a particular firm, then who knows what you’re going to end up with at the new firm? You may just end up leaving again.”
This is something Aaron Holloway, counsel in Perkins Coie’s real estate and land use group, can speak to. “I’ve jumped around a bit,” he tells us. “I learned early on that firms make business decisions all the time, so I needed to start making business decisions as well. In order to get to where you want to go, you have to make these decisions, and move on if necessary.” For Holloway, the decision to move on to Perkins arose when the firm was looking to build its real estate practice in Seattle. With his previous experiences guiding his decision, “I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to work at Perkins Coie, the largest player in town.”
Even if you’re not considering changing jobs at the moment, labor and employment associate Chris Lepore points out that “it’s important once you get to your 5th or 6th year to think critically about where you are and if that’s aligned with your goals – and not to let the window of time when you can easily make a lateral move expire before you’ve thought about it.”
So, let’s think critically.
Focusing your practice
“Lawyers tend to be risk-averse people, but young lawyers should take the opportunity to take themselves to the best firm they can that suits their long-term career goals,” says Lepore, who’s based in Perkins Coie’s Chicago office. “I wanted to build my practice at the higher end of the labor and employment market,” where higher compensation and opportunities for advancement felt more achievable.
His goals were also bound by geography. “I wanted to find a place in Chicago where I could build my practice long-term,” he explains. Prior to joining Perkins, he didn’t work much with Chicago-based clients. “I was concerned that by working exclusively in New York but living in Chicago, I would have difficulty in building my own book of business.” Ultimately, “I felt Perkins Coie provided what I wanted. I’m doing much less single plaintiff discrimination and much more trade secrets, restrictive covenants, and class actions.”
Mike Gotham reiterates that “being sure of the direction in which you want your career to go is important. By the time you’ve been practicing for a few years, you should have a pretty good sense of what you like to do and what you don’t.” He continues: “Given the size of our firm, our practices are extremely broad and diverse, so any number of practices someone might be looking to focus on or develop, we likely have.”
“I’ve been really lucky to have had some amazing mentors who’ve advocated for me to get professional development opportunities."
As former Deputy Solicitor General in Wisconsin, Sopen Shah worked exclusively on appeals involving the State of Wisconsin, arguing eight cases before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. When she began looking for opportunities with firms, she wanted to find a place where she could continue to practice appellate law but also work on voting rights matters. It was also important to her to be able to “work on local cases that affected my community or state.” At the same time,“I envisioned going to a firm that would allow me to have a national high-level practice.” In Madison, “Perkins was unique in being able to meet those goals.”
Shah now works on all of these types of cases as an associate in the firm’s complex litigation and appeals group. “I’ve been really lucky to have had some amazing mentors who’ve advocated for me to get professional development opportunities, like conducting a direct examination of our expert witness,” she tells us. “I can trace each of those opportunities to my mentors.”
Climbing the ladder
At Perkins Coie, a dedicated attorney training department implements and oversees formal training and mentoring programs. “It’s something I’ve really valued about the firm,” says Chris Lepore. “I went to Colorado last year for several days of deposition training, for example. My practice group set me up with an incredible public speaking coach, just because that was something I wanted to work on.”
“I was afraid I was going to get too senior and not have the expertise that I needed to justify my seniority on paper."
Aaron Holloway was almost ready to bow out of law firm life altogether when the opportunity at Perkins Coie came around. “I’d been at firms where development wasn’t a priority,” he explains. “I was afraid I was going to get too senior and not have the expertise that I needed to justify my seniority on paper. If that’s the case, you have to cut ties and move on.”
Within Holloway’s first year at Perkins, he was promoted from associate to counsel. At Perkins, ‘counsel’ is a promotion step after six years of practice, signaling the associate is on the path to partner. “It keeps the associate and their partner sponsors focused on that next step,” says Mike Gotham, “so it creates points in a person’s career as opposed to a seven- or eight-year track where no one gives it much active thought until just before the question of promotion to partner comes up.”
Holloway praises the level of support he’s had from senior figures at the firm. “One partner told me, ‘If you keep doing what doing, you’ll be partner by 2022.’ To hear someone say that to me is mind-boggling. Someone at another firm told me firm life wasn’t for me, and now someone is saying that.”
Contrasting Perkins with his experiences elsewhere, Holloway says the firm is “intentional about providing you with opportunities, client experience and development.” From the start, “folks were interested in helping me get to a position where I could build my own book of business and make partnership. I’ve been to places that take that confidence away from you.”
The culture question
When it comes to law firm culture, Gotham says “laterals are very savvy in what they’re looking for. They understand that cultures vary not only among firms but even among practices in the same firm, so they think carefully about the people they’re meeting and what the firm’s priorities are.”
Aaron Holloway agrees on this, pointing out that “juniors have a tough time because they’re learning, and it’s high pressure and very challenging. They don’t have the judgment yet.” He recalls “having someone looking over my shoulder point out every little thing. The job is already tough, but with those kind of extra pressures? That takes its toll on you.” Holloway says Perkins is “one of the few places I’ve worked where my confidence has been restored. I’ve been able to bring in my own clients and run my own deals.”
“The classes at law school don’t teach you about what it might be like to practice law at the firms that 80% of graduates end up at."
Sopen Shah adds that “the classes at law school don’t teach you about what it might be like to practice law at the firms that 80% of graduates end up at. People don’t figure that out until a few years into their career.” Before law, she was in finance with a management consulting firm in DC. “In some ways it feels like I had a mini career before going to law school, which I think was helpful because it gives you a perspective a little different from that of a student.” With this experience under her belt, “liking the people with whom I work was important to me. It’s a big part of why I chose Perkins.”
Finding the opportunities
And how can associates figure out which firms can give them what they’re looking for? “By the time someone has been practicing for a few years, they have the context, the knowledge, and probably the network to make sure it’s the right move,” says Gotham. “My best advice is to start calling your law school classmates, or friends and peers you may not have gone to school with. Ask them about their firm – How is it? Do you like it? Why?”
Gotham adds that associates should also be proactive in getting the message out there and “make sure people know you’re looking.” Perkins Coie circulates a list of the firm’s current job openings to its associates every month, inviting them to put forward any candidates they think are right for the job – so you never know when you might mention your job search to the right person.
Before moving back to Wisconsin, Shah made connections by contacting people who had gone to her school: “At Perkins I didn’t really know anyone, so I happened to find someone who went to Yale Law School and emailed him out the blue. He was super helpful and put me in touch with a bunch of people.” She set about networking as much as possible, which included making the most of social occasions. “I remember Perkins had a ten-year anniversary party for the Madison office,” she says. “I went to that and met even more people.”
“You are your own business and you need to make decisions just like any other business would.”
Of course, any associate reading this will relate to Chris Lepore when he says, “It’s very hard to look for a job when you’re already working, especially when it’s a job based on billable hours!” He worked with a recruiter to find his opportunity at Perkins. “They helped me prepare for my interviews and reviewed my resumé. They served as a coach and an intermediary with firms – sometimes those conversations are easier had with someone else.” For tips on how to get the most out of working with recruiters, click here.
While there are plenty of quality recruiters out there, Gotham says associates shouldn’t wait for the phone to ring. If they can fit it in to their schedule, “I would start doing my own research and networking so I’m controlling the process, as opposed to search firms giving me only the options they know are available.” As Aaron Holloway puts it, “You are your own business and you need to make decisions just like any other business would.”
See Perkins Coie’s open positions here.